Inventer-le-monde :
l'artiste citoyen
"Coloring Public Space," Interview with Joseph Adandé by Anne Szefer Karlsen

Saturday 15 September 2012

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Coloring Public Space
Interview with Joseph Adandé by Anne Szefer Karlsen

The intimate reflection on the artist-citizens and their practice in public spaces might well be as important for the work, which often is temporary, as the work itself. This means that the figures of the art critic and art historian who write about art play an important role for our understanding of the works in question. Writing thus positions actions and public interventions in a space other than the physical public space: not only in textual space, but also into a certain tradition. Art history and art criticism provide tools to access these works in ways that visual documentation alone cannot.

In this conversation, Joseph Adandé and I discuss how his experiences have shaped his thinking about and work in contemporary art. More importantly, however, he takes us on a tour of Porto Novo to see different creative expressions in the city where he lives, such as public monuments and other artistic works. Adandé is professor of art history at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Cotonou, and is a founding member of AICA Benin (The International Association of Art Critics, Benin).

Adandé points out that there is always a difference between what you study and what you end up doing when you finish school. He returned to Benin in 1984 after studying modern and contemporary art in Paris, where he defended his PhD at the University of Paris I, Panthéon Sorbonne, with his dissertation, Les Sieges des rois d’ Agbome et le siege Akan. Adandé explains that at the time Aniambossou Armand and the very young Romuald Hazoumé were the only two internationally known contemporary artists from all of Benin. Each moved in his own direction: Aniambossou was in touch with Western collectors and welcomed the suggestion that his paintings, which employed black as their primary color, were like the Surrealists’. This enabled him to reach both a public and buyers for his works outside of Benin. Hazoumé, however, worked as a sculptor, holding his first exhibition in the Centre Culturel Français de Cotonou in 1987. Adandé was there to see the first public showing of the artist’s “masques bidon,” masks created from plastic petrol cans. The context and the local artistic environment in Benin in the 1980s made it apparent to Adandé that he needed to change his scope and interest from focusing entirely on contemporary creations. He started working with “museums” in Benin and through this work he realized that traditional art was far from dead in contemporary society. In fact, it was quite to the contrary.

As Adandé explains, “The adjective ‘traditional,’ as I use it here, refers to pieces usually created in specific environments for sacred reasons and with a direct link to divinities, perpetuating the ancestors’ legacy through shapes and functions. They follow canons that are enduring enough to delineate styles and that, for instance, flourish in initiation contexts. The users of the pieces are known, but the names of the artists are kept secret from the outside world. And the strength of the secrecy preserved those societies from disappearing over time. ‘Traditional artists live in their own societies and create for them in an internal, private language. They keep to the rural areas and hardly interact with what ‘city’ people perceive as art. Westerns and Beninois urbanites think they are marginalized. I doubt it. However, I think they somehow need to preserve a certain distance, to be able to create that which is seen as marginalized behavior. Indeed, they can disappear into the forest for days or even stop acting like everyone else. But how can they be marginalized when they are the main characters in most performances and social events?”

He continues: “A painter of Gelede masks in Save confessed to me that he is always eager to see the masks he painted dancing and that when he does, he is as astonished as anyone. I really don’t see these artists as marginalized when they are farmers like everyone else and indulge in art in their spare time. Rather, I would say that they are the intellectuals of their communities who are in charge of openly expressing what is thought to be secret, thus creating a specific aura around themselves to play their role in society better.”

Adandé finds the best definition to be the one used by Mgr Adoukonou Barthélémy: “community intellectuals (intellectuels communautaires).” According to Barthélémy, community intellectuals play many roles simultaneously: they create, criticize, and train. But more importantly, they explain their art to others, a role that art historians and critics play in our contemporary societies. In these traditional societies an artist forms opinions and the artist’s point of view counts greatly. This is one reason why, in the Fon kingdom of Danhomè founded in the 16th Century, artists were “spouses” to the king. When the royal information service located one such creator, he was given a dowry like a woman to be married, housed in a compound as close as possible to the palace, and named accordingly. He then had to use his art to express royal discourse as well as the names and military prowess of his patron. An artist in this kingdom was an “adahoun doto,” or “the maker of the marvellous/strange thing.” Such a designation made him a man of power, a kind of magician. Nevertheless, he had great freedom and was respected by the community.

Adandé gives an example of the power and freedom that artists held in Fon society: “Two appliqué tailors known as ‘Hantan’ and ‘Zinflu’ were commissioned to sew a royal gown for the next day. They could not finish before dark and did not deliver the gown to their lord. When asked why, they simply answered ‘hankan tan zinflu mo do,’ meaning ‘we lacked hantan and it became dark.’ Hence their names: Hantan means corn husks used to light a fire so that the tailors could sew in the dark. Zinflu means ‘mere darkness.’ Although the king was deprived of his gown, he did not impose any sanctions on the tailors. The situation even provoked a sort of humor by letting the two tailors carry the names of their difficulties. Even the kings respected the privileges of their artists and their freedom.”

Adandé describes his perception of art now, after more than twenty-five years of teaching. “My interest in art,” he says, “is to look at it as a window opening onto the mental landscape of people.” And when he says “people,” he means both artists and people in society. During our discussion, we sit in one of the seminar rooms of the Ecole du Patrimoine African (EPA) in the center of Porto Novo. We are not far from the Jardin des Plantes et de la Nature (Plant and Nature Garden), where we later have lunch with its director Franck Ogou. Ogou himself acts in public, although very differently from an artist in the context of the artistic practices that Adandé emphasises in this conversation. He too lives in Porto Novo and, concerned about the country’s visual heritage, Ogou is in the process of independently creating a private archive of photographs of public places.

The Jardin des Plantes et de la Nature, known as the Garden of Porto Novo, holds a special place in the city’s history. It was once part of the forest belonging to the kings of Porto Novo and dates back at least three hundred years. Some fifteen years ago, it became an experimental ground for the EPA, which began to restore it as a museum in which the trees, due to age, use, and provenance, constitute the museum’s collection. After Franck Ogou took over, the garden has attracted many Porto Novians and is now frequently used for ceremonies such as marriages and other festive celebrations, for vacation camps for youths, and as an herbal medicine supplier for healers.

Adandé continues: “The primary meaning of art is not always to be found on its surface. Art is an artifice, in the noble sense of this word. It is a construct, if you like, and you always need to dig through several layers of meanings if you really want to get into the mental landscape of the creator. If you do this with African art, which is my speciality, you will discover the creeds of people as well as their beliefs, carefully embedded in materials like wood, textile, paper, etc, something solid, which can be touched. What I find quite fascinating is that the contemporary artists are using the grammar and the vocabulary of traditional creations. Sometimes they are not aware of this. Despite the different visual expressions that occur in contemporary art, the core of artistic expression remains the same: the creators’ imagination draws from their own physical, philosophical, religious, or sacred environment, both visually and symbolically.

“Contemporary art has taken the freedom to use different type of materials not frequently used in the past. In the case of Benin, it is easy to find the links between the art of yesterday and that of today. If you go back to old sacred local temples you will see that there has been transference from them to contemporary painting, for instance, but not in a brutal way. In voodoo art we mostly find three-dimensional pieces, while of course a canvas is two-dimensional. Nevertheless you can feel that they come from the same background, even though one is said to be modern and contemporary and the other traditional.” I ask how this transference can be seen, to which he replies: “I shall give you two examples: On their deities, mainly on Legba, devotees smear a rather fluid mixture made of white corn flour and red palm oil. The liquid splatters, leaving a form frequently present in contemporary paintings. The same splattering can be seen on walls where people use clay oil lamps: When the oil is heated it escapes the lamp and is absorbed by the mud wall. After drying, it leaves a dark dot, carefully depicted by Simplice Ahouansou for instance. At least even if we cannot be absolute, we can admit that dripping has precedence as a process in our visual tradition.

“My second example will deal with a more universal object, the cowrie shell. When you see a painting with a cowry shell you might think that it symbolises a coin, because cowry shells were used as coins in the past; hence the inclination to think that it would be referring to wealth. But cowry shells are very important in the different traditional beliefs and practices of this country and could symbolise a number of things: They belong to the world of medicine because they are rich in calcium. They belong to the world of visual creativity because visually the shell itself is a kind of dividing structure. And they belong to the world of sacredness as they have been used for divination. In fact, they were widely used to create the eyes for gods, particularly those of Legba. They also adorn some of the bracelets of devotees. So when it is present in a contemporary painting, it can be a reminder of so many ideas and it can indeed be misleading when it does not have any symbolic meaning at all and is used for its almost white colour. You need to be patient enough to find out in which layer the artist is positioning himself when using the shells.”

He continues: “Color, however, is something that we still need to study. Certain colors have an established relation to nature because we have known them for a long time and extracted them from nature. Yellow, for instance, refers to the yolk of an egg. Red refers to blood or the color of the earth. Sokey Edorh, a Togoleese painter, as well as many contemporary Beninese painters and artists such as Romuald Hazoumé, Simplice Ahouansou, etc., often use it. Some twenty years ago, no artist would dare to use red because it is symbolically linked to violence and danger. Blue as such does not exist in our color palette. We have a kind of violet, or lightly dark colour, taking its place and there is no word for pink, which is associated with red. You certainly know that the usage of blue even in advanced culture is rather recent. So by taking color into consideration when you look at contemporary painting you can follow which line of tradition that the artists act upon, and also how deeply they have interpreted and included the great variety of colors that exist in our environment today. To me colors are of great interest and a subject that needs to be taken very seriously by art historians. It might no longer be an easy task because we have such a variety of acrylic colours available now that are used by everyone.”

The thematic direction that the Biennale Bénin 2012 takes us in its title, Inventer le monde: l’artiste citoyen (Inventing World: The Artist as Citizen) opens the door to both art history and to examples of art in public. There are a rich variety of public monuments and sculptures in the cities of southern Benin and today contemporary artists also use urban spaces for interventions and temporary projects. In 2010, one of the artists participating in the Biennale Bénin 2012, Edwige Aplogan, made a public intervention, Les Drapés des indépendances, which responded to the anniversary of Benin’s independence. She covered the monument at Place l’Etoile Rouge in Cotonou and a building in Porto Novo with fabrics in the colors found in the flags of all of the African nations that gained independence in the early 1960s. Of course, this was a special occasion, but on any given day in Porto Novo, Cotonou, or Ouidah, monuments are present throughout the cityscapes. When asked about the tradition of monuments and the permanent presence of artworks in Porto Novo, Adandé invites me on a drive around town to see the manifestations and residues of public artistic expressions.

“The best known public art in southern Benin is produced by a group of practitioners that are known as the Zangbéto who, according to oral history sources, are the night guardians of Porto Novo. Visually, the Zangbéto manifests as a fiber mask that gives the person carrying it an atypical conical shape, the size of which is often impressive. The masks can be exhibited anywhere as objects in their own right, I would say, but principally they are used at the meeting points of the masqueraders, the zangbéto vali. When you pass these meeting points in the city, you can see the masks, and they have the ability to create a public space. However, it is not a public space for everyone to gather. Rather, it is a cornerstone for the village environment and for the people. Those who meet there are initiated into the Zangbéto, one might call it a well-known discrete – but not secret – society. The initiation to which primarily gives you the right to be out late at night.” He continues: ”Besides the zangbéto vali, there are traditional places to display art objects and places for musicians to meet. Those public places are known as honto. In this culture, music is as important as the visual arts. In fact, they always go together and each ethnic group can be differentiated by its music. When you hear certain drums, you know what kind of other expression will accompany it. For instance when you hear the drum known as “bata,” which is a Yoruba type of drumming, you know that the egungun masquerade is going to be performed. In other words, the drumming announces the art event.

“Returning to the Zangbéto, they are also known to mold figures in a much more sophisticated manner than other artists. One could ask oneself why this is. Is it because they have time to take great care of what they do? They mold only at night, far from indiscrete eyes and in a very quiet environment. Is it because there are very talented people among them? Certainly. Art has traditionally been a way of showing power and, I would say, differences. So, is it because they want to impress the inhabitants of the city and show their power that they take such care to create their mouldings? I am still unsure and it is probably a mixture of all this. In the eastern part of Porto Novo, in the area of Adjara, there is a lot of Zangbéto art. Unfortunately, the names of the molders are kept secret by the members.”

On our drive through Porto Novo, we pass the sanctuary of the great Zangbéto mask known as kpakliyawo, which protects the entire city, although it is mainly protection for the king. The building that houses it takes the shape of the mask. Unfortunately, on the day of our drive, the sanctuary’s doors are not open, but passing it leads us to discuss ideas of temporality and heritage. Adandé elaborates: “In Western countries, there is a tendency to protect and to preserve the art that is being created, while here you can leave it to dissolve in nature, which is the case for the Zangbéto mouldings: they can always renew. The resulting renewal of art brings in the vicissitude that I touched on earlier. With time the styles and colours change. This tradition of art’s renewal exists also in so many other African ‘traditional’ cultures.”

While driving through Porto Novo, Adandé points out a small open space by the side of the road: “Dispersed around the whole city are small public places like this, known as placettes (small plazas). This is where people traditionally meet and discuss and it is around such placettes, or the honto that I mentioned earlier, that houses and temples are built. Strangely enough, you do not enter a compound without crossing the honto. What I mean is that the deities at the entrance of the lineage compound always watch you. In other places, you might find spaces with the same function, but they are created differently. In Porto Novo, these spaces are quite visible, and a younger colleague, an archaeologist by training, has started documenting these spaces by the trees which are their main markers, the Newbouldia Laevis and sometimes Ficus trees. Unfortunately, the new plan for the city is breaking up these traditional structures, and in doing so, it destroys a way of life. In the past, if there was a quarrel in a family, you didn’t necessarily settle it at home. You could bring the question to the placett, where the elders would join in. You might start to settle the dispute at home but if it was an important discussion it had to be settled it in public. Actors also use these placettes because there are certain types of plays that cannot be performed anywhere else. If you destroy these public places, you also take away the possibility for people to meet and speak and of course also to play.”
When speaking about art in public, there are several issues of “origin” that still need to be discussed. Some monuments in Porto Novo are private initiatives, like the figure of the actor Baba Yabob erected in 1985 on the great market street that leads towards the Protestant church. Art historians have yet to research this public sculpture, Adandé tells me, but we do know that it was the actor and his friend, M. Okeke, that erected it and not the state.

“There is an increasing number of artworks being commissioned for public places by the state in Benin, but this is quite a recent tradition. In the city of Porto Novo, the only art commissioned by the state is the carving on the Place de l’Indepandance. It was commissioned from a great Togolese artist who came here in 1962-63. If you know the style of Paul Ahyi, you immediately recognize it as one of his works. He calls this type of cement carving ‘the new Mexican style,’ and if you look closely you can see that it resembles sculptures in past Latin American traditions. There used to be a larger space surrounding it, but today houses surround the work and it is not really a public place as such anymore. This development is related to the series of coups d’états that Benin experienced in the years after 1963. The place was forlorn, and people could buy parts of land to build on, they even got permits to do so, which was not very good for the city. The city of Porto Novo has since tried to get the land back and told people to leave. The case of the Place de l’Independance was settled in court, but the public place that we can see today bears witness to the fact that the issue has not been totally resolved.”

Like many other cities in Benin, Porto Novo is also a historical site for slave trading. One of the city’s mayors thought that it was important to represent this history with a number of monuments. In the eastern part of the city, we pass a commissioned piece by the artist Dominique Kouass. Its position is important because it is on the major route from the east by which slaves entered Benin. Another monument linked to Poro Novo’s colonial period portrays prisoners pushing barrels. “This is a public place that I like very much, because of the way it is structured. It also shows colonial labour and how people during the World Wars were obliged to contribute palm oil. The palm oil was put into barrels that were brought here from Europe and they were rolled to the river where they were shipped back to Europe. This place immortalizes this historical period. The palm oil was used to make soap like le Savon de Marseille and sometimes for cosmetics. It was also used to grease machines, while we of course use it for cooking.“

On our way back to the Ecole du Patrimoine African we pass by Place Jean Bayol, commonly referred to as Place Bayol. The plaza is named for Bayol, one of the governors of Porto Novo who signed the Protectorate treatise with the French. In the middle of the plaza is a concrete carving of Porto Novo’s King Toffa I, who signed away the city to the French in 1894 “This means that in one site you have the colonizer and the colonized represented. In addition, as you arrive at Place Bayol from the main route from Cotonou, the first thing you see is a fountain that was given to the city by Danielle Mitterand, the French president Francois Mitterand’s wife in 1983. Unfortunately the water from it sprinkles onto the street and so it was turned off a long time ago.”

Learning about the erosion of artworks in public and wondering about the discipline of art history, I wanted to know what source material art historians rely on from pre-photographic times in Benin.

Adandé laughs: “Fortunately today all art historians have a camera.” He continues: “For the time before photography, we rely on written accounts that are cross-checked with oral sources. Art historians have the privilege to try to get some scanty information from artworks. We can take the writings of a traveller to the kingdom of Dahomey, and the way he would describe the temples of deities and the different works of art that he sees around them. You clearly can visualize what he is describing. And because traditional settings are very slow to change, in certain places you can still witness exactly the same things that were described in writing. In Fon culture, for instance, we have a type of carving known as Bochio. They are a very tricky type of carving to discover. When you see them, they are nothing extraordinary, but their presence somewhere is always an indicator. They delineate spaces exactly as Legba figures delineate frontiers. In one of my articles on the subject, I wrote that they are in liminal zones in the city. Like a no-man’s-land between, I would say, prosperity and aggressions from the outside, security, and fear, protection and anguish in the zone their aura is supposed to protect. So you position your artwork facing where the danger is supposed to come from, creating a kind of battlefield. The Bochio becomes a kind of soldier. So if you come into the culture and are not aware of this, you will just pass them, ignoring that you are crossing a frontier. There are frontiers around every house, and every town. The Bochios can face any direction. It depends on what has been prescribed by those who put down the stone in the building’s foundation. They look like nothing extraordinary, but they are so important. You could ignore them easily, but they are really part of the visual creativity of the Fon people. They too can be left in nature, but they would not dissolve. Instead, they would erode slowly because of the Prosopis africana wood that was frequently used to carve them in the past. There is a book written about one Bochio by Christian Merlo, Le Buste de la Prêtresse [1]. He found a discarded Bochio carving, on which a woman’s breast was still present. Being an art historian, he used his imagination, as one does, and he thought that this was the bust of a priestess. So, your eyes can fall on things that for you are significant, except that you need an interpretation that goes far beyond what you see. I would say that art has this ability to free you. Even if the art first attracts your eye, your mind and your ability to think and create endlessly is what art provokes in us.”

[1] Christian Merlo, Le buste de la prêtresse : un chef d’œuvre d’art (Auvers sur Oise: Archée, 1966).

Anne Szefer Karlsen conducted this interview with Joseph Adandé in Porto Novo during the summer 2012.